The five young women walking up Adams Mill Road in Adams-Morgan that late-summer evening looked up when they heard the sound of a car at the top of the hill, taking the turn too fast. They watched with alarm as it veered erratically back and forth, first toward them, then away, bouncing off the sidewalk on the other side of the road, and finally, reassuringly, settling into its own lane.

But then, with a scream of rubber, it lunged across the road, as though the driver had stamped on the accelerator instead of the brake. In an instant, it was upon them.

Heidi Avery leaped out of the way. Sarah Pedersen couldn't. The car slammed into her, dragging her up the wooded slope on their side of the road. It hit a tree and recoiled, thudding back over Pedersen's body, rolling down the embankment until it came to rest with its front wheels against the curb, the engine shuddering.

One of Pedersen's friends ran to find help; the others ran to her. They found her lying on her side, trying vainly to get up. Even in the dim light they could see that she was bleeding horribly, and they could hear her moans. Pedersen recalls staring up at the sky, wondering why she was lying under trees.

The driver climbed out of the car, a battered silver 1976 Toyota. He was about 5 feet 10, of medium build, black, wearing bluejeans, a white T-shirt and a blue baseball cap. He urged Sarah's friend Catherine Zissell to "stay calm." Another man got out of the passenger seat, and three women from the back seat.

Traffic was slowing; people were getting out of their cars to see what had happened. Into this small crowd, the two men from the silver Toyota disappeared.

Eerily, the empty car backfired. Avery tensed and thought, unaccountably: Gunshot. Catherine Zissell, an Englishwoman visiting Avery, thought: It's not over.

An ambulance happened by -- pure luck -- and Pedersen was carried aboard. Avery traveled with her. One of the women who had gotten out of the Toyota approached Zissell. She was wearing a red T-shirt. She said she had once worked as a paramedic, that emergency care is critical and that Pedersen was lucky about the ambulance.

Pedersen was in the Washington Hospital Center trauma unit for two hours and then in surgery for seven. Her right leg was amputated above the knee. Both thighs were fractured and had to be repaired with metal plates and pins. One vertebra was chipped, several ribs were broken, her lungs were bruised, her skin cut and scraped and gouged. The accident occurred on Sept. 5. She did not leave the hospital until early October.

In the psychological hierarchy of the profoundly injured, one's thoughts initially turn to survival, and then to gratitude, and only later -- often much later -- to such relative abstractions as justice. This was the case with Sarah Pedersen, 24, an architectural draftsman and an avid athlete, a sprinter in high school, a sailor, a rowing enthusiast.

It was three weeks before she began to wonder about the driver who had done this to her and walked away; what had happened to him? Why was he driving so wildly? Was he inebriated? Surely, she thought, the police had found him easily, since they had his car, and there were all those witnesses. She had been blameless. She hadn't been driving, or drinking, or walking in the road. She assumed the driver had been charged with something like attempted manslaughter, or vehicular maiming, or hit-and-run assault, whatever the term was.

Surely, she thought, something had been done.

Puzzling Answers Sarah's father, Frank, a softspoken psychologist, started making calls to find out what the police had done. Each time he called the Metropolitan Police he was treated with courtesy and concern. And each time he found the information he was given baffling and disconcerting.

He learned that not only did the police have the car, they had found a wallet on the front seat containing identification that matched the car's registration. The owner was listed as Antonio L. Curry, 1656 Hobart St. NW, a house barely three blocks from the scene of the accident.

Frank Pedersen got a copy of the accident report made by an officer at the scene who was responsible for collecting crucial information that could later be used by an investigator. It offered little more than a place and a time, and a list of Sarah's friend's names, but that was the only official report he was given. It was not until later, when The Washington Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request, that it became possible to begin slowly assembling the pieces of the police investigation of Sarah Pedersen's accident.

There were not many pieces. And they only fit together if you force them, as you must with a cheaply made jigsaw puzzle; there are gaps. In the District of Columbia, prosecution of vehicular crimes operates on a system that seems to strain logic, one that pushes accident victims to exact their own retribution by filing civil lawsuits at their own expense.

At this point, four months after the accident, the owner and suspected driver of the car, Antonio L. Curry, has been given three traffic tickets -- but only because District law says the owner of a car is presumed to be the driver unless he can prove otherwise. He has paid no fines, served no time and appears unlikely to do either. When police finally found him, he denied driving the car, said it had been stolen -- though he never reported it stolen. His driver's license was suspended because he had no car insurance, but that is the only legal consequence he has suffered. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

For Pedersen and her family, the accident summons questions that go beyond the pain and trauma of her injury. What would be an appropriate punishment for someone who maims you through an act of negligence? And what does a person mowed down on the sidewalk have a right to expect from the police?

There were significant details missed and promising leads overlooked in the investigation of Pedersen's accident. But even if there hadn't been, the bottom line is this: In the District of Columbia, cutting someone's leg off with a car is not a crime. Killing someone with a car is a crime, under certain conditions, and cutting someone's leg off with a chainsaw is a crime, but maiming someone for life with a vehicle is merely a traffic violation.

Considering the nature of her accident, one police officer explained to Sarah Pedersen, not unkindly, there is only one way she could have achieved a semblance of justice. She would have had to have died.

Dark Humor

"When I woke up, the first thing they did was to touch my left my foot and say, 'Wiggle this.' But they never touched my right. I tried to wiggle my right toes and they wouldn't."

Another memory that stands out clearly from Sarah Pedersen's stay in the hospital is of the times she was placed in a whirlpool bath to cleanse her wound. She remembers that the nurse would unwrap the layers that bandaged the stump of her leg, and in the second before she was actually lifted into the bath her blood would course out of the wound and splash onto the floor below, forming a crimson puddle. She remembers staring numbly at that puddle.

But she is not one to dwell on such miseries. Pedersen was well served by a dark streak of humor: If you have to get flattened on a sidewalk by a runaway car, she observed, it's best to have it happen on a Wednesday, when the trauma unit at the Washington Hospital Center is not as busy with gunshot victims as it is on weekends. And she appreciated the irony when she noticed on her hospital bill a charge for the saw blade that was used to cut off her leg: $62.75.

On her release from the hospital, she had to move home, an emotional blow to someone just starting to enjoy her first taste of independence. She is on medical leave from her job as a draftsman with a Bethesda architectural firm.

"Someone told me while I was in the hospital that God never gives us anything we aren't strong enough to deal with," she said. "I think that's garbage. If I believed that, I'd have to believe that somehow I deserved this, and I don't."

Picking Up Pieces

Three days after the accident, Sarah's brother David walked the few blocks from his house to the scene of the accident, not knowing what he might find, just wanting to see where it happened. He found pieces of the car's fender and a few things belonging to his sister: her shoes and a belt. Somehow, he thought, the police should have picked them up and returned them. He carried the fender shrapnel for a short distance, not knowing why, and then hurled it angrily into the bushes.

Routine Investigation

The few records of this case are kept at the D.C. Traffic Enforcement Branch, a shabby building set on a triangular block at Sixth Street and New York Avenue NW. There is a handwritten sign at the entrance directing to traffic school those who are in need of it, and then a glass window blocking the public from the inner sanctum. Capt. David Baker is the commander of the TEB; Lt. Eric Mines is the supervisor of the Hit and Run Squad. Though neither personally investigated Sarah Pedersen's case, they are the only two officers who were authorized to speak for the traffic department.

According to Mines, the investigation of Sarah Pedersen's accident was routine. He said that as investigations go, it was not perfect, but "pretty good."

This is what happened:

At the scene, police impounded the car and took custody of the wallet found on the front seat. They visited the hospital. Officer Gerald Brown spoke briefly with Heidi Avery and Pedersen's other three friends, taking their names and their descriptions of what happened, summarizing their accounts into a 74-word report.

Detective Dean Jacobsen arrived at the hospital. His job was straightforward: to find out whether Sarah Pedersen would live or die.

"He was able to determine," says Mines, "that she did receive the necessary medical attention and at the time she did stand a good chance of recovery... . At that point the injury was no longer life-threatening."

That conclusion was to shape the nature and speed of the resulting police effort. It was a matter of police priorities, dictated by a matter of law. In 1979, in order to relieve an overburdened court system, the city decriminalized most traffic offenses. That meant most vehicular offenses in which no one died were punishable by fines but not jail sentences, unless police could satisfy a rigorous burden of proof:

To arrest someone at the scene on a criminal charge, Mines said, "the officer has to see the offense occur."

"Once a death occurs," explained Baker, "then those other categories -- manslaughter, homicide -- might apply. But if there is no death then only the basic traffic charges would apply -- whatever action or misaction the person was involved in at the time, whether it was speeding or headlights or stop sign or whatever." Injury is legally irrelevant.

In a case like Sarah Pedersen's, this would still leave the possibility of a criminal traffic charge of failure to yield right of way to a pedestrian. To sustain that, Mines said, an eyewitness must be found who can place the suspect behind the wheel.

Were there eyewitnesses who could have done that in this case? Yes. Although neither Pedersen nor any of her friends could positively identify the driver of the car, four people certainly could have: the other occupants of the Toyota.

Did the police try to find them? No.

Mines said he asked Milton James, the investigator assigned to the case, if he had "anyone else who can put this guy behind the wheel."

"And he said, 'No, there were some girls in the car, I talked to one of them, the other two left the country and I can't get a hold of them."

James, apparently, confused the friends of the victim -- the three Englishwomen who were visiting Avery -- with the friends of the driver. In fact, the accident report does not mention that there were people in the car other than the driver.

How about the driver? They had a name because they had a wallet. And a car, belonging to the name in the wallet.

How much of an effort did the police make to find the driver in the minutes and hours after the accident when they could test for alcohol or drugs and conceivably sustain more serious charges?

How much time elapsed between the accident and the first time police tried to find Antonio Curry?

Nearly two weeks.

Mines was asked why Curry wasn't interviewed on the day of the accident.

He consulted the records. "He left the scene," he said. "He wasn't there."

Instead of trying to contact the suspected driver, the investigator's first action was to contact the victim, by letter, on Sept. 14. It wasn't until four days later that James finally telephoned Antonio L. Curry at his home. According to the officer's handwritten record of his interview, Curry denied driving the car:

"Stated his vehicle stolen, no rpt. on file ... stated that he was at friends home drinking home made wine, did not return home for several days."

In his notes, James also wrote that Curry had been listed as a missing person by his mother the year before. James told Curry to come to the Traffic Enforcement Branch to be interviewed Sept. 26, three weeks after the accident.

When Curry appeared Sept. 26, according to Mines, James hoped he would say he was driving the car. But Curry repeated his contention that his car had been stolen and that he had been drinking with a friend.

The police charged Curry with three traffic offenses. One was for having no car insurance. The other two were based on the District law presuming -- for civil traffic violations only -- that the owner of a car is the driver: failing to report an accident, and colliding with a pedestrian. Curry's license was suspended indefinitely for the insurance violation.

His total liability: $250.

Amount paid so far: $0.

Even months later, some aspects of the police investigation still puzzle Sarah Pedersen and her friends.

Heidi Avery, recalling the interview at the hospital, said that after she had told police she doubted her ability to pick the driver out of a lineup or identify him from a photograph, the officer was no longer interested in her. Although he asked her three times what Pedersen was wearing, he did not question her on details of the driver's appearance. It was not until three months later -- after The Washington Post requested records of the case -- that she was re-interviewed in depth. Any hope that she had of pulling up other details from her memory were long since dimmed.

Also, the accident report -- the document that would inform all follow-up police work -- failed to mention the existence of a potential eyewitness, the woman in the red T-shirt who had said she was a paramedic, or list the name of the Englishwoman who had gotten the best look at her.

Police photographs taken at the scene were overexposed and useless.

The car was never inspected, and was released Sept. 26, the day the police gave Curry the three traffic citations. Baker said that cars are inspected only when the driver claims mechanical failure as a defense, so no one will ever know why that Toyota suddenly careened across the road.

Through the months, the Pedersen family continued to press James, waiting for some kind of detective work that would unearth the witnesses, or some kind of evidence that would result in a court proceeding. Some of their expectations, perhaps, were naive, based more on what detectives do on television than what they do in real life; the family was appalled, for example, that no fingerprints were lifted from the car, even though the police explained that finding Curry's prints in his own car would not conclusively prove he was driving.

Still, for the Pedersens and their friends, there remained the unshakable belief that somehow $250 in fines was not enough.

From time to time, Sarah Pedersen wonders about a fact she finds singularly ironic: The driver was never tested for drugs or alcohol; she, however, as part of routine procedure in the trauma unit, was tested for six drugs, including alcohol, cocaine and PCP. The tests, which came back negative, cost her $198.

Has the System Failed?

In early December, three months after the accident and two weeks after The Washington Post first submitted a legal request for information on the case, the Hit and Run Squad attempted to persuade District Assistant Corporation Counsel Howard Horowitz to cite Curry for a more serious criminal traffic offense, "failure to yield the right of way to a pedestrian." But Horowitz refused, citing the absence of an eyewitness. Also, he said, the way the statute is written, the charge applies only to a pedestrian being hit in a crosswalk, not on a sidewalk.

The Pedersens feel somehow the system has failed them. Has it?

"I don't know if I could answer that question as asked," said Mines. "I've been a policeman so long I see things primarily from the police point of view. As far as the responsibility of the case, she got a pretty good investigation, and in a pretty good time span considering the accident occurred Sept. 5 and three charges were made Sept. 26. ... Let's face it, we could put him in jail for 10 years, they would still not be able to reattach her leg."

A Visit to Mount Pleasant

Antonio Curry lives in a row house in Mount Pleasant, just a few blocks from where Sarah Pederen lived at the time of the accident.

He answered the door at 5:45 on a Monday evening, dressed in a bathrobe and pajamas. He fit the very rough description of the man seen leaving the Toyota at the scene of the accident. He acknowledged that a car belonging to him was involved in the accident, but declined to comment further.

Superior Court records show that Curry faced a felony charge of arson in 1989, pleading guilty to a reduced charge of destruction of property. He received a suspended sentence.

James told Frank Pedersen that Curry is unemployed and lives with his mother.

It seems likely that if the Pedersens were to go to the expense of hiring a lawyer to file a lawsuit against Curry they would gain nothing more than a symbolic victory.

A Different Scenario

What would have happened if Sarah Pedersen had been hit in Bethesda, where she grew up and worked? A traffic investigator for Montgomery County said that standard procedure there is to locate the suspected driver as soon as possible, partly to test him for alcoholand drugs.

Officer Dennis Evans, given a description of the accident, said that in Montgomery County one officer would have stayed at the scene while another would have tried to find the registered driver, first by telephone and then by going to the address listed on the driver's license and registration. If the suspect was not home, the officer would have waited, tried to get information from neighbors about where he might be, and after "a few days" issue a warrant for his arrest.

In Montgomery County, Evans said, Curry would most likely have been charged with "personal injury/hit and run," a criminal charge that carries a $1,000 fine, up to a year in jail, 12 points on the driver's license and suspension of the license.

Patrick V. Murphy, a former D.C. police chief who is now an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Mayors on police matters, also said that standard police procedure dictated the swiftest possible effort to find the suspected driver, especially when you have a wallet ID that matches the registered owner of the car. "I can't rationalize a nine-day delay {in beginning the investigation}," Murphy said. "Leaving the scene is a serious offense. Most police departments would not downgrade {the charge} to that extent."

The Abiding Pain

Losing a leg is costly in many dimensions. It causes pain beyond the understanding of most people, however sympathetic they may be. Redefining your body is one thing; realigning your goals, your career and your emotions is in some ways harder.

In the months after the accident, Pedersen watched her athlete's body atrophy and weaken from disuse. She's suffered unexpected pangs of jealousy on encountering old acquaintances, eyeing their two legs and pair of shoes from her uneven perch.

Her health insurance, combined with the benefits from a $100,000 automobile policy, will cover most of the costs of her care and rehabilitation, although she wishes she could afford to go to the $90 physical therapy sessions five days a week instead of the three that are covered. The bill for her hospital stay came to $58,700, of which she had to pay $1,540, and the cost of her rehabilitation is still mounting.

In late October she coxed a woman's crew in a boat race -- rowing lingo for the coxswain's job of steering the boat, a delicate task that can mean the difference between victory and defeat. A member of the crew carried her down to the boat on piggyback. They won.

Being able to use crutches was the first breakthrough in her recovery, allowing her to go up and down stairs and even take the Metro to meet friends for dinner. "That was good for my self-confidence," she said. "And on crutches I can look people in the eye like you can't in a wheelchair."

Late last month she tried on her prosthetic leg for the first time. "I stood up!" she reported gleefully. In physical therapy, she swims to build up her muscles. The therapist ties a bungie cord around her torso while she learns to keep from rolling over in the direction of her remaining leg.

"I can already sense I'm going to have a love-hate relationship with the leg," she said. It's my key to freedom, but it's very clunky and not very pretty. But I took my dad to see it and he didn't think it was so bad. That made me feel better."

She has resources that many accident victims don't, such as a supportive, available family and an inner core of discipline, and she is grateful for them. But she can't help feeling a need for some kind of retribution, some way in which she could know that the person who did this to her is sorry, that the system is sorry, that these things shouldn't happen. Perhaps we look for too much from laws and courts. But where else would you turn?

"I do feel angry," she said. "And the more I learn how hopeless it is to pin anything on him, the more hopeless I feel. But the question is, do I want to spend the rest of my life being angry about this? I don't."